Ultra Violent Violet

Every year the Pantone people pick their ‘colour of the year’. The colour chosen is supposed to be representative of the times we’re in but it often seems a little wide of the mark to me and more of a marketing gimmick than a useful barometer. I confess though, I have a bit of ‘thing’ about Pantone that could be interpreted as sour grapes (PMS 19-3014 comes to mind) so… There’s that…

Anyway in 2018, Pantone chose a particularly flaccid shade of purple called ‘Ultra Violet’ which they defend as ‘a dramatically provocative and thoughtful purple shade, PANTONE 18-3838 Ultra Violet communicates originality, ingenuity, and visionary thinking that points us toward the future’. What a lot of nonsense…

Just leaving the LinkedIn hyperbole aside for a moment, what amuses me is the choice of a colour which, technically, can’t be seen! Ultraviolet, as any school pupil knows, falls outside the spectrum of visible light by some nanometers. So there. Now, it’s just a name of course, presumably chosen for emphasis rather than spectral frequency (really, really violet) but still, I think the choice speaks volumes to our visionless, directionless times: we can’t see where we are or where we’re headed. We’re blinded by the light we cannot see…

I’m possibly getting a little carried away with the metaphor there but how about this then: Ultra Violet sounds very reminiscent of Little Alex’s ‘Ultra Violence’ in Anthony Burgess’s terrifying A Clockwork Orange – not to mention Kubrick’s iconic movie version that inspired violence in London’s projects for decades. What better measure of social anxiety and still-ever-so-relevant paranoia could there possibly be? Well, apart from Fahrenheit 451 or maybe 1984… But rather than throw swatch books at the company that managed to corporatise colour before I thought of it, let’s consider a better choice.

We can, and usually do point to movements in the arts and sciences as cultural indicators and markers of change: the printing press, the telegraph, the steam engine; the birth of impressionism, cubism, pop art; the rise of rock and roll, jazz, punk, hip-hop… The computer, the laptop, the mobile phone; the Internet, Google, Amazon and Netflix. Each represents a keyframe in the continuum of social change like the ages of tribes, kings and revolutions before (and since). But colour, like fashion or architecture, could well throw a better, um, light on where we are…

Millennial Green

I first heard the word ‘pollution’ when it appeared on the cover of National Geographic in 1976, over a picture of discarded plastic and rubbish – I have no idea where. Since then we’ve gone from ‘oh yes, it’s awful’ to a full-planet consciousness movement complete with rising ocean levels, visible changes in climate, and a new class of ratbag to despise and/or elect to become president: the ‘denier’. For a generation raised on environmental awareness, green would be a good contender…

Green would also fit comfortably with our collective envy for a better life. In the affluent, aspirational west, we still relentlessly pursue wealth, power, land and property – even as the waters are rising and the oceans congeal with our collective waste. In the ‘developing’ worlds, migrants risk mirky waters to escape the misery of war and poverty, hoping the greener grass of Europe will provide shelter from the storm. And so it goes…

Pop Pink

The eponymous pop icon of the noughties was (and still is) no passing princess. Like the Spice Girls before her, like Madonna, Janis Joplin, Joan Jett and any number of women in the new history of popular music, she’ s a mid-career incarnation of a movement which began with burning bras and ended (not that it’s over) with #MeToo. Pink, the colour of candy and girlish innocence, redefined as militant defiance is a good contender…

Pink is also emblematic of the rise of n-sexual counter-culture: homosexual, bisexual, transsexual, polysexual… The gay movement (LGBTQ and counting) has adopted the entire rainbow in more recent years, presumably to symbolise the spectra of human sexuality in its myriad forms. But even so, it’s surely pink, with it’s inherent hypersaturation, and ambiguous cultural appropriation that most closely represents the movement – if just one colour was to be elected.

Red alert. Stop the world. Danger ahead.

Red is surely a good choice, so intrinsically associated as it is with Marxism and it’s derivative forms, past and present, east and west. The western hemisphere has so quickly turned its back on its once-communist siblings for reasons as perplexing as they are vexing. Vlad Putin has become the poster boy of cyberterrorism, fake news, angry Twitter-bots and election meddling. He’s been siding with the bad guys in Syria, reclaiming Crimea, and sending nervous agents to topple old spies in London. And that’s just what we know about.

We don’t like China either with its bullish intransigence in the southern seas, its puppy-love of strong-arm surveillance, and its emerging dominance in cellular networks that should surely be in the hands of people we can trust in Silicon Valley. Bad China. Bad Russia. We don’t care about your stance on Capitalism any more, we don’t like you because your bullies with bombs. Bigger bombs than ours. And anyway you’re still red.

Red is also the corporate colour of Netflix, that new dominatrix of entertainment that has gone from sending DVDs by mail-order to ultravixen of the living room, bedroom and probably the bathroom. Netflix is emblematic of our quick(ish) shift from passive broadcast receivers to greedy, love-on-demand consumers. In our hands, on our laps, in the kitchen, on the bus – we just can’t get enough of that glorious, steaming, streaming content.

The Sound of White

White. White out. White noise – that expression that once referred to a transmission of random frequencies with equal amplitude but now stands in for the meaningless, impenetrable opacity of modern existence. The tsunami of mindless radiation that pours from every device in our digital lives, echoing cultural appropriation while devoid of meaning.

White – the colour of diminishing snow in the polar fringes. The colour of brides who still take the mantel of virginity in the age of polyamory. The great uncolour, the colour of nothing, devoid of tone. Luminance without hue, noise without signal. White – the universal undercolour. The colour before the real paint is applied.

White – the colour of the once-dominant tribes of the European plains, maintaining power in the proper world but doubling the guard on the ivory tower just to be sure. The colour of supremacists, still making headlines even as their numbers and their cause dwindle to insignificance. The colour of the colourless robes of the Klan, those evil icons we love so much to hate.

White – the colour of life-making semen. The seed of progenity. The neutral starting point from which all colour and all life emerges. White, pure white, with equal values for each of the red, green and blue primary channels, all at maximum charge. White, that unique state of light in which all colours are contained equally and from which all others can be derived. White light, when it shines, does so without bias or prejudice. The colour of everything and the colour of nothing concurrently, it is inherently oxymoronic.

Blue Monday to Friday

Blue. At once calm and miserable. The minor key of colours, it is used in Tokyo subways to reduce suicide and yet is intrinsically associated with depression, sadness, misery. The colour of the loveliest skies, and the deepest oceans. The deeper we go, the darker it gets.

Blue is also the colour of liberty and unity. The United Nations flag, the liberté of the French Tricolore, the base colour of the many flags of the British Empire, the US Democratic Party, the European Union… With Britain on the verge of separation is blue the colour of our times? Brexit blues indeed…

Picasso’s Blue period was not a happy one. Roughly spanning the first four years of the 20th century, it was a prolific yet miserable time for our favourite Cubist, who was clearly and visibly depressed, at least partly due to the death of his friend Carlos Casagemas who shot himself due to unrequited love (not for Pablo mind). No, blue in art is rarely happy unless you go back a bit to the ancients.

Despite plenty of evidence in antiquity (it’s been found in Egyptian sculpture, Persian jewellery and ancient Chinese pottery) the Greek’s and Romans were famously either oblivious to blue or didn’t regard it as a colour at all. Witness Homer’s enigmatic ‘wine-dark sea’ and the paucity of specific references to blues until centuries later.

But some would say the Roman’s had a point: our blue skies, blue waters and even blue eyes are just a trick of the light. Those blues are the result of a tendency for shorter light wavelengths to be scattered more than longer ones (so Lord Rayliegh tells us) when passing through bodies of oxygen and nitrogen molecules. Thus we see blue as a result of those scattering collisions. Blue is, you could say, the starlight that couldn’t quite get away, the lame deer pursued by solar wolves…

Does blue represent our collective schizophrenia? Our social bipolarity? The tension between serenity and misery? The hue that escapes the madness only to be caught in the headlights of our universal vision? Nah…

Back to Black

When I was growing up in the 1970s and 1980s no one cool would be seen wearing anything but black, and while we’ve moved to more saturated hues since then there are still many sub-cultures who continue to do so. As I write this, I have tickets to see a Sex Pistols tribute band in Cardiff where I’ve been living for a few years now. It’s unlikely the audience will be wearing pink; black stovepipes a little more likely…

The ‘new black’ is still a term we use to indicate the popularity of a certain colour (or anything else for that matter). Hence the Netflix series, ‘Orange is the New Black’, about a middle-class woman in her 30s who finds herself ‘incarcerated’ (as the Americans say) in a women’s prison in ‘upstate’ New York (as the Americans say) – which you doubtless knew already unless you’ve been incarcerated yourself – for quite some time…

Black is the branding colour of some of our greatest institutions and cultural movements: from ISIS fighters to Blackwater contractors; from pirates to punks, goths to sloths. All rebels and rebellions, champions and radicals identify with black. It is the everyperson of anti-colours…

Yes, black is the greatest of all colours. The sum of all colours. The absence of colour; the absence of light to be precise. Pure black, real black, exists, after all, in a vacuum. A black hole, we’re told, is a nasty colourless prison from which not even light can escape.

Black is an infinite negative sum, the absence of colour, of light, of seeing. If we combine all the colours together, all our inks and our pigments, our paints and poetry, our fabrics and failures, we’re left with just one colour that represents us all. The sum of all fears, the totality of nothingness: black.

Black, surely, is the colour of now.